Welcome to The Year Ahead, a mini-series from the Heinemann Podcast, hosted by Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re) Invigorate Your Teaching. Meenoo has always believed that teaching is harder if you do it alone, and teaching during a once in a lifetime pandemic is as hard as it gets, but by meeting educators around the world who are going through this too, maybe together, we can share ideas, commiserate, and be a witness to each other’s experiences. In this podcast series, we’ll meet educators who are getting ready to return to school under the most challenging and unusual circumstances.
In today’s episode we are meeting Sarah Gross from New Jersey. Sarah teaches her students high school English and if you’re curious about how a reading/writing workshop educator pivots her practice in a hybrid learning environment, stay with us. More information about our guest and resources mentioned during this episode are in the show notes below.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Meenoo: Sarah, welcome. Thanks for being here. Thanks for doing this with me.
Sarah: Thank you. I'm excited.
Meenoo: I don't know how long I've known you, but I've long admired your practice. I think we've even presented together in the past and have done projects together, so many things that I can recall. So it's just an honor to have you do this with me, and your perspective and your experiences will hopefully help other teachers think about what they're going through, and how we're all grappling with where we are. So welcome.
Sarah: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I was thinking about that this weekend, and it has to be at least 10 years that we know each other, but all thanks to Twitter.
Meenoo: Yeah, it's funny. And we'll make sure that we include your blog and your writing and where people can find you later. But it's true. We met at conferences, and our conversations on Twitter go back a decade. So that's kind of amazing to think about. But others may not know as much about you, so maybe we can just start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself, your teaching journey, what you love about your work, and a little bit about your school and the context in which you teach.
Sarah: Sure, sure. So I currently teach high school, ninth and 12th grade English, at a STEM focused vocational school. So we are entrance exam based, but we're a public school here in Monmouth County, which is in central New Jersey. I'm also an alum of the same school, so I kind of walk this really cool line of, you know, I was in your shoes, and now I'm on the other side here, with my students. Prior to that, I taught sixth grade for four or five years, also here in central New Jersey. And anyone who has taught middle school knows middle schoolers and freshmen in high school are not that drastically different. And there are days where my seniors are not that different from them, either.
But I teach very much with like a reading and writing workshop based curriculum, lots of independent reading. I have a huge classroom library, lots of conferencing, things like that. And then our school focuses a lot on collaborative learning. So we do a lot of project based learning, with groups and things like that, starting right at the beginning of the year. And what's really interesting is that my students come from over 50 different middle schools. We're a county wide district. So when they walk into my room, they don't know me, but they don't know each other, either. And they all have made the decision to leave behind their home high schools, and for some of them really make this journey, for some of them up to an hour each way to get to the school. So it makes for a really fun and interesting and very diverse class each year.
Meenoo: It reminds me a lot about my own experience, teaching at Science Leadership as a public magnet high school, students really making that active step towards changing their path from going to a neighborhood high school to actually choosing where they want to go. Some of what you described about your classroom practice makes me want to jump right into well, how will you handle this in this new normal, but I'm going to pause on that, and maybe just start by asking you, what do you know about your school's reopening plan and where do things stand as of August 17th?
Sarah: So we are opening on a hybrid schedule. Students are divided into an A group and a B group alphabetically. I think anyone who has dealt with high school schedules knows that that buzzword cohort doesn't really work at the high school level. I look at my English sections. I have kids in three different languages, and three different sections of math, at two different levels of math. So the best that we can do is just divide them so that only half of them are in the building at a time. I'm lucky I work in a small school. We only have a little under 300 in the student body, but they're divided into that A group, that B group.
Our A group will attend full days, Monday and Tuesday. Our B group will attend full days on Thursday and Friday, and Wednesday is a remote half day for everyone so that they can clean the building between cohorts. So there's no crossover between student cohorts, but obviously there will be crossover with the teachers, because we'll be there each day. And we are one of the few school districts in New Jersey that is planning to serve lunch every day, which is, it's interesting, because here in New Jersey, we can't eat inside a restaurant, but our kids can eat lunch. I have a colleague who said, "Hey, if you miss restaurants, come to some of your local public schools over the next few weeks, and you can eat in the cafeteria. It'll be just like a restaurant." So that's where we stand right now.
And then we did alter our schedule, our calendar, slightly. Kids are coming back, I think a day later. And we're doing, instead of our typical beginning of the year, whole district meeting, we're doing three days of professional development, and of course classroom setup for social distancing and all of that good stuff.
Meenoo: And I've been reading a lot about your advocacy and leadership, all the way to speaking directly to your governor. And I want to get back to that topic, but I think given what you said about how your school will open, how are you feeling? And then how do you think your students might be feeling, and what might their needs be as you prepare to go back?
Sarah: Sure. So here in New Jersey, our students do have a choice. The governor clarified just a few weeks ago that all families had to be given the choice for in person or all remote learning. So we do have a significant portion of the school that so far has chosen the all remote option. So mostly what is sort of rolling around in my head is trying to figure out how to plan for, and then how to teach, when I have kids in front of me. I will then have kids at home who are in the same section, but just happen to be in a different cohort. And then of course, my kids who I will never see in person.
And we're on I guess like a modified block schedule. I see my students three times each week. And because of the way the cohorts break down in some sections, there are kids that I'll see in person twice every week. There are some kids I'll only see once every week. There are some sections I'll always see the whole class remotely. There are some classes I'll never see them all at once remotely. So my biggest issue is trying to figure out essentially how to be three different types of a teacher, but I'm only one person.
Meenoo: Yeah. I got a little dizzy while you just described each of those scenarios a little bit. So will there be any live streaming? Will you actually be live streaming while students are learning online, while some students are sitting in front of you in the classroom? Will you have that scenario, as well?
Sarah: So it's an option. I probably won't, just because when we do our online standardized tests every year by grade level, the rest of the building was always told not to stream or use the internet at the same time, because it could mess up saving standardized tests or uploading them to the cloud. So I have a lot of trouble believing that our wifi is going to be able to handle every student on a device, plus teachers live streaming. And I also have a lot of concerns about FERPA violations and things like that.
I think it's very easy to sit here in the summer and say, well, I'll just make sure kids are never on screen and we never say anyone's name or we never by mistake release somebody's accommodation. But in reality, I know that my projector sits on a cart in my room, and by June, I still haven't convinced my freshmen not to walk in front of it and trip over the plug three times a day. So no matter what we say, someone is definitely going to walk in front of the camera, and there's also no control over who a link is shared with. A lot of our students are super competitive, which is great in many ways, but I think can be really difficult when it comes to live streaming, because I fear who can take a screenshot of one of their classmates or record what their classmate is saying, and maybe a tutor or a caregiver at home says, "Hey, I noticed that so-and-so, they always give an extra prompt to or extra wait time. How come you don't get that?"
A lot of the things that we do every day in the classroom as just sort of second nature don't translate well online and can also, I think, become a FERPA violation really easily. So my plan is, as of this point, to treat everybody like they're remote, because I do think at some point we're going to go all remote because of exposure or because our transmission rate goes up. So I've been trying to sketch out ways to, I don't even want to call it flip the classroom, because flipping the classroom would then involve a lot more one on one time with me when we're physically together. And I don't think I can do that with social distancing rules, and with masks and face shields and all of that. But if I can provide videos and then almost a workshop type space for the kids who are in school, at least that will let me answer individual questions, both virtually and in person, without one set of kids getting priority over the other.
Meenoo: You brought so many things up, obviously very tactical things, like quality and the strength of wifi and network traffic, and just making sure that you're protecting students' privacy in terms of who's on camera and who's getting screenshotted without their permission or awareness. And one of the things while you were sharing this that struck me is how sacred and often sensitive and built with care our classroom environment and discussions are. So for example, if you teach something like Drown, a short story collection by Junot Díaz, you're talking about themes around masculinity. You're talking about things around race and equity and the way women are portrayed.
And if someone were to hear my conversation, or my classroom discussion, or your classroom discussion, even with a great bonded group of 12th graders who are respectful of each other, and you've built that community over four years, a caregiver can overhear a snippet of a conversation out of context and may make an assumption about you as an educator or a peer of their child, without fully understanding the work, the active building of teaching and learning that you're doing. And it's just one of the things that in this, I think we're calling it remote learning or distance learning, but really we're teaching during a pandemic, a once in a lifetime pandemic, and it's just one of those things that how do we ensure that quality of learning and the opportunities for students to do that kind of depth of learning? And I don't know if you want to respond to that or what your thoughts are on that.
Sarah: Yeah. It's definitely something that I have spent most of the summer trying to just come to grips with. When we closed in March, I had had all those months before then to build community in my classroom. And I think, especially in English class, like you said, we have a lot of these conversations that build on each other throughout the year. And my own students, we read an article from the New York Times every day when they come into class, and we build background knowledge, we scaffold, but more importantly, we discuss. And I see, even if there's a change in the schedule, or maybe we have to bring two classes together, that it completely alters everyone's comfort level in the room, because they're able to build this trusting community within the classroom. And when we went to remote learning in March, that was still there. They were still uncomfortable discussing via video, but we had discussions over chat, through Google Classroom questions.
I don't know what that looks like in just a few weeks when we go back to school. We're still going to use the newspaper, but of course I usually use physical copies and we can't do that this year. I still want to have those discussions, but I think it's very hard for high school students, middle school students, to trust a teacher that they maybe have never met, or that they're meeting in person once a week. It's a big difference from three times a week for an hour or a little more than an hour to, I see you once a week for an hour.
And it's not just that relationship with the teacher, it's the relationship with their classmates, especially because my kids are coming from over 50 different middle schools across the county. They don't already have that trust level built in with anybody who is sitting around them. So I haven't figured out what that looks like moving forward, other than really spending a lot of time at the beginning of the year, more than I normally do, which is usually a lot, just trying to build those relationships.
And I think it also means being really flexible. You know what, maybe these conversations start as small groups and they're written, which I'm really crossing my fingers, we're a Google school and I want those breakout rooms, but maybe it starts there. But you brought up another really valid concern for me, which is not having control over who else is listening in on those conversations.
My freshmen students, especially, are figuring out what they think, what they believe, what their opinions are, and throughout the year sometimes they swing wildly from one side to another. And that's, I think, really intimidating if you are afraid someone could be recording you or listening to you. And I mean, it's even as simple as something like, here in New Jersey, we can have students who are out in the classroom, but not at home. And schools are not allowed to tell parents that. We use preferred names and preferred pronouns, and I think it can be really easy for a neighbor or a family friend to say, hey, how come so-and-so uses that name in school, and maybe calls a parent or texts them.
So there are just so many things that are part of every school day that I think a lot of people outside of education don't think of, but in English class, those conversations are huge. And I saw in the spring what it was like to ask a question, and it was like speaking into a black hole because nobody would answer. And when I surveyed kids, the most common response was, well, what if someone records it?
Meenoo: One of the things that you brought up that I think a lot of folks listening will relate to is how much information teachers process that is nonverbal. The way a student walks in, the way a student interacts with a group of friends or not, whether they talk to you or not, there are these hundreds of clues that you are processing. And because you know the student, you care about them, they have trust in you, you often sometimes stop someone after a class and say, is everything okay? Do you want to talk about anything?
They may or may not, they may not always do it, but there is so much of that information that is shared and processed in order to support students. And when you talk about the shift from knowing someone face to face three times a week for more than an hour at a time, versus moving all online or seeing someone once a week, there is not just a loss, obviously a loss of quality of support students receive, but a loss of community connections that you're speaking up, and it's something that teachers will mourn, and I think we should call that out. It's something to grapple with and something to process, because there's so much to process, but there is that too.
And I completely agree with you, students try on identities, especially try on political identities, they try on music preferences, they try on fashion preferences, and being able to experiment and shape and mold their own identity with influences from teachers that they connect with, and peers that they connect with. Is such a huge part of that high school experience.
You started to talk about this a little bit, that you will have to do community building in concretely different ways of what you are facing this year. Can you just speak a little bit about that? You started talking a little bit about small group and how you will shape those experiences, but how will you build community in this new year?
Sarah: Yeah, I'm mourning, a little bit, the loss of some of the things that do at the beginning of every year, which is funny because I'm one of those people who's like, I can't use my lesson plans from year to year, every class is different. But a lot of that community building does start with the same base, and mine is very physical, it involves playing with Play-Doh and working in these huge groups, which is clearly not working right now.
So I'm definitely mourning that, but on the other hand, I also know that for me, a big part of community building is sharing, reading, and writing, and sharing preferences in there. So that's going to be my focus. How can we get to know each other through what we like to read, what we don't like to read, what we read this summer? We have summer reading for our incoming ninth graders, but I always laugh when I explain to people, because it's this list where the font gets smaller every year, because I try to keep it on one page, but our kids just have to read a fiction and a nonfiction book from the list, and the list is built by the freshman teachers and the previous year's freshmen students.
Meenoo: Oh cool.
Sarah: Yeah, so at least there's a little bit of community building there. So normally our students share their summer reading through this asynchronous project where they create a one page magazine. One of my amazing colleagues came up with that, and I realize that's something we can still do. We did that, and we did it asynchronously because our kids come from all over the county and they have to learn to work in groups. They can say to mom or dad or older sibling, you have to drive me 45 minutes to so and so's house for a project, they have to learn to do it online.
So I know I still have that stuff, and I'll be spending a lot of time building community around our local library. We don't have a school library. We are on the campus of a community college, our kids have access to the academic library, but that's not very helpful for independent reading. So my first thing that I did when we went to remote learning was send a desperate email to the librarian in town, like, "Is there any way to get digital library cards?" And it actually ended up being like kismet. She's like, "You have no idea, I've been trying to get in touch with somebody in your school for years." And of course, they probably just think it's like a courtesy call when someone calls from the library. She's like, "I want to get you library cards."
So all my kids will have digital library cards on the first day of school, and book talks, which I would normally hold up in class, I know I can do digitally. I did them last year, we can break into small groups and do speed dating with books. It's just instead of passing books around, like I normally would in the first week or two, I'm going to spend a lot of time making Google slides with images and excerpts from the first chapter. Audio books are something I wouldn't normally be able to use in the classroom, but they're going to have access to. So I'm trying to look at the bright side there. But I just keep coming back to that word mourn that you used, and it's so true.
There are so many things surrounding relationships that we build with students that just can't happen this year. And when you were talking, one of the things that popped to mind was those interactions that we have outside of class. Grabbing someone in the hall, or that kid who chases me down at the end of lunch and is like, "I'm returning this book and it was really good and I can I give it to my friend?" We're not going to have those small moments of building relationships and seeing the kids with their friends and picking up on that body language. I'm a huge proponent of, obviously, building relationships online.
Sarah: We said at the beginning. You know, we live on opposite sides of the country, obviously through Twitter and social media and email, we can easily create friendships. And I think our kids have been doing that their whole lives, especially when I think of my 13 or 14 year olds. But still there's just so much of that body language and that face to face stuff that we're not going to get back at any point this year, and I do think, as teachers, a lot of us are just going to have to let that go. We can't focus on it, and maybe we can't always replace it, but there are other different things we can do that might build different types of relationships.
Meenoo: Yeah. You know, I think a core human need of anyone of any age is to be seen and to be understood, and I think you innately understand this, but understand this in relationship with teaching young people. Like I want to be a fly on the wall and watch you teach because I bet you do this in amazing ways, because it's so true. It's those passing moments, it's not those, oh, you wrote a great essay or, you wrote a great critique of a text that we read together, but it's sometimes those moments that you could almost forget or not make the extra effort because you you only have two minutes before your next class starts, but you take the time to stop a student you haven't seen, or you ask about how their sibling is doing that was sick.
That really makes up what we call that beloved community, that MLK idea that's so important. And I think it's so true. I think you started mentioning some tools, but what are some supports or tools or things that you think you'll turn to as you adapt your practice, if you want to share something that you're thinking about, or an adaptation that you're thinking about making, that maybe might strike a thought in another educator's mind?
Sarah: The biggest loss for me was about a week ago when my principal told me I had to pack up my classroom library, because that's the tool that I use in my classroom. Anyone who walks into my room immediately sees that we value reading and writing. And I think outside of being an English teacher, it seems like they're sort of decorative, and it's nice that some kids use them, but for me, they're tools in my pedagogy every single day, and not just curriculum wise, but also building relationships.
So that was a tough thing to hear. Luckily there's a lot of research out there about books and transmission of COVID, and I was able to share research with my principal that rescued my library. I don't have to pack it up. On a very selfish level I knew packing it up would take hours and hours and hours of my time, and unpacking it would take hours and hours and hours of my time. But I still can't use it like I normally would. So for me, biggest change in tools is going to be that shift-t to using electronic resources. And it's so ironic to me because in February I was sitting in a meeting. I'm on the Penguin Random House Secondary Teachers Advisory Council, and the publishers were asking about using ebooks in classrooms, and the table unanimously, of secondary teachers was like, "Nope. The kids hate them. They have no interest. We don't have access. Who wants to read on a cell phone?" And literally a month later I was like, "Oh boy."
I still don't like them, but... That's going to be my big pivot. I have spent some time this summer recording Screencastify book talks where instead of holding up a book to the class, I am going through Hoopla and OverDrive, which are the two apps our local library uses and doing my book talks that way then. And what's nice is in Hoopla more kids can borrow a book. It's not just my one or two copies. In OverDrive I'm teaching them how to put a hold on a book, how to request books to be added to the library. So I think those are life skills that we normally didn't get a chance to go over. The biggest change I saw last spring was in the number of audio books my students used. Donalyn Miller always talks about like emergency reading, having that book on your cell phone or having an e-reader with you, that you can pull out. And for my students, their first inclination is to listen to music if they're sitting someplace or to play a game.
They started telling me that they were pulling out their audio books at night, or they were sitting on the porch listening to an audio book. And I think, again, that's something that they can do forever. And most of them were completely unaware that the library had these tools for them. So I'll still be able to do hand selling of books, it's just, I am the only one who can touch them and then they return it to me and I'm going to quarantine them between cohorts. But they're still going to have that instant access to books.
I still don't think they're going to read eBooks, as I told my principal. That's why I need my library, because... I mean, I finally gave in during the end of the spring and I bought an e-reader after saying forever I wouldn't, but I'm spending so much time on a screen, I could not read anything else on my computer or cell phone and that's what my students say. So until every kid has an e-reader, I think audio books are going to be the first preference for them, but at least I can now supplement that with some books in my classroom if they're in the building with me at some point,
Meenoo: And I'm so glad you mentioned Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle's work, two of my mentors as well, and who shaped my own practice around choice reading in the classroom, and we'll add those resources as part of this episode, too. In all that you said about transferring your practice, I think what really struck me was your commitment to matching students with books that might help them do that windows and mirror thing that we all, teachers, want students to experience to gain new perspectives, but also see themselves in the things that they read, and that core commitment, while having to jump through many hoops or hoopla here, sorry, English teacher pun, is really not just admirable, it's core of who you are.
And that's why I wanted to do this with you, because I think when everything is in chaos and when everything is difficult, hanging on to those core things that work for your students is maybe a good reflection for all educators right now. What are some things that you know you believe and you know that work for your students, and you will find a way to adapt those. And going towards the how will you give yourself grace or extend kindness to yourself question, that you're not going to be able to do everything. Let's just repeat that. It is not going to be what it was before. That mourning is there. So that question back to you. How will you extend kindness to yourself the way you extend it to so many people around you?
Sarah: It's interesting because I think that idea that Rudine Sims Bishop window, mirror, sliding glass doors has been central to my classroom for years now, and I did struggle in the spring with the idea that my kids were not getting access to my library and even just the idea that being surrounded by books all the time makes you want to read something more, and I very carefully pick what I highlight and what's sitting on my shelves and what's turned outwards and what's on the ledge on the board. That was really tough to lose. And then I was seeing things on on social media, on Instagram, on Twitter, where teachers were driving to their students' houses and dropping off books.
And at first I was like, "Wow, that's incredible." And then I was like, "Wow, that's not sustainable in any way, shape, or form as a human being." For me, it's because my students live across an entire county. For other teachers, it might be because they live across an entire city or they don't have a car. Or it might just be a health thing. Who wants to interact? How do you interact with kids who haven't seen you in so long and you're just dropping things on their porch. So that was a big part of giving myself grace, that what for other teachers isn't necessarily going to work for for me. I mean, what doesn't work for me might work for somebody else. And that did mean taking some of those things that for me, I have always pushed aside or said no to, like ebooks, audio books in the classroom. I've been so focused on, they need print, they need print, they need print to, you know what, we're going to just open it up much more.
They had the opportunity to have even more choice than normal, and does it mean that for some of my students they probably read fewer books than they normally would? Yeah, it probably did, and that was something I had to let go of. It's something I know I have to let go of this year. Is it going to mean this year that I can't see them reading? I'm just going to have to trust that they are? Yeah. And as teachers, I think a lot of us are control freaks, so that's a tough thing to let go of. But for my own sanity, I'm going to have to, and it's going to mean changing some of my own practices in our virtual and in person classes to more short excerpts, not just using mentor texts in writing, but mentor texts in reading.
We already did articles every day, but I saw last night there was an NCTE chat on Twitter and Carrie Mattern was talking about how she's trying to set up like text sets, that involved podcasts and an article and a book talk during the week, all in the same theme. And I was like, "That would be awesome." I did a podcast activity at the end of last year on a choice board and the kids really loved it, so maybe it just means now I get to do more podcasts in class that I normally wouldn't.
And anyone who teaches in a content area, whether you have four classes a day or eight classes a day, it means you're doing the same thing that many times, so my kids know we don't watch many movies in my English class because I cannot watch the same movie seven times in the same week. So now with kids working more independently, we can do these things because again, selfishly, it means I'm not going to have to listen to the same thing all these different times, but they'll be able to listen and take a little bit more control of their learning, and then hopefully instead of me doing book talks all the time or podcast talks, they'll be able to take control of that and start sharing with their classmates.
Meenoo: Absolutely. I think what I'm moved by is your own reflection where you can let go of the habit that we all have as humans to compare ourselves to others, but also your own beliefs are evolving around digital texts and audio books. And I love the bundled theme idea of articles, podcasts. I don't know if you've been listening to the Nice White Parents podcasts, but I highly recommend that to anyone. We'll also add that to the resource for this episode. I want to give you a chance to share anything of your own or someone else's that you think more educators should hear about or know about.
Sarah: I will say one of the silver linings to all of this has been that while I normally don't think too much about school, at least in the month of July, I have nonstop been thinking about school and I've been nonstop talking about school with a lot of colleagues, both in my building and around the country. One thing I'm really excited about is I'm really lucky to work with a really great senior English colleague, and we've always planned together and aligned our classes, and we said at the end of last year, we were like, "We usually start with our dystopian unit for the seniors." We were both like, "Yeah, maybe not." We read Station Eleven in there. I'm like, "We cannot read a book about a global flu pandemic that kills half the world population. It's not going to work for us."
So we used it as an opportunity to order a whole new tech set, and I'm super excited to spend the first marking period with my seniors talking about identity and what it means to be American, who gets to be American, and is America really free and accessible to everyone. So instead of reading Fahrenheit 451 and Station Eleven, and a number of other dystopian texts, we will instead be reading Saigon, which is a memoir, Behold the Dreamers, and a few other texts. Oh, Clint Smith's Counting Descent, which I'm so excited for because we had never ordered a poetry anthology before, and neither of us feels really confident teaching poetry, but we were like, "This is our opportunity." And it was also inspired by the fact that we were like, "With everything going on in the world, how do we just start school and not talk about the protests and not talk about George Floyd, not talk about Breonna Taylor."
Hopefully these texts and a lot of articles that we have and podcasts and things like that are going to give us that opportunity. I actually was just thinking, "I bet we could use at least one episode of Nice White Parents," because our kids are really diverse and they come from all over the county, and I think just like me, a few of them would listen and be like, "Oh my God. How is this possible?" Or they might say, "Yeah, I saw that in my middle school. Or I see that in my home high school." So I think there are lots of opportunities there for kids to make connections and look at current events and then look at their own lives and hopefully have those conversations with me and with each other. So I'm trying to be excited about those sorts of opportunities, which... That's one thing.
And then I just think I have to be really flexible. Like I said, there are very few things that I do the same from year to year. At least I tell people that, but then I sat down and I was like, "No, I do have these core things that are really important to me and some of them are not going to work the way that they usually do. So it might just mean letting go." I am excited that I think it means way fewer opportunities for whole class novels, lots more independent reading. I'm hoping that that can be something that clicks for a lot of my colleagues across the country. So fingers crossed there.
Meenoo: I think you rightfully pointed out the dual pandemics that we're living through for people of color. It's not just COVID, but also awareness and finally addressing of some of our country's biggest challenges around racism and then how race and health intersect in a time of pandemic when black people are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white people. And for students who are in schools, that could be someone in their family, that could be someone in their community. So your change in what you open the year with and making room for those conversation is such an important thing. I think I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge, and Ann brought out the tension in some of the public advocacy you've been doing online. First, not everyone might Twitter stalk you as much as I do, so they might not know how you've been advocating for teachers in New Jersey and teachers in your school. Can you share a little bit about what have you been doing and then maybe comment on the tension of being... I hate it when people say that I'm just a classroom teacher, to speaking to powers that may be, even your very own governor. Can you talk about how you grapple with that tension? I think it's a really important part of how you've been thinking about this and I'd love for people to know more about it.
Sarah: One of the ironic things is, for years, I have been fairly vocal about the lack of teacher leadership opportunities if you're not willing to leave the classroom and I've pushed for more of those sorts of opportunities, but they don't really exist, or if they do, they exist in a really limited role. And I guess I created my own role this summer.
But for anyone who doesn't know me, in 2017, I finished my master's degree in biology. I'm an alum of the high school that I teach at, which is STEM focused. I knew fairly early on I didn't want to be an engineer, which is what most of our students want to do. But I did go to college planning to be a biology major. That changed when everyone told me I just had to work in a lab. I didn't want to do that, but I definitely have this dual humanities and biology background.
So I felt like I was someone who understood a lot of the science behind what was going on. I mean, I'm no epidemiologists, but I'm lucky to have a lot of friends who are. But I do, as weird as it sounds, like regularly read scientific journal articles and things like that. So for me, especially here in New Jersey, what's been really tough is our governor has been very focused on like data determines dates. We can't eat in a restaurant, as I said earlier, but he started pushing fairly early on for reopening schools. And I don't think you'd find any teacher who disagrees that in person education is better. I think every teacher acknowledges that there are huge inequities with remote learning, but what I found so frustrating was we've been spending all this time since March focused on reopening. Yet, so many scientists say it probably can't be done safely.
So I've always been a writer. I started writing about it and it went from Twitter threads that people were like, "Can you put this all together in a blog post?" To expanding and posting these articles. I started then writing letters to Governor Murphy who for the record has never responded. I even did an interview recently with NBC and they called him for a comment, and his office's comment was watch our announcement today. And the announcement was like, we should go back to school in person. So it is frustrating, but I can't fathom not saying something. Again. I'm really lucky. I work in a school that in terms of school infrastructure is relatively new. It was built in the 90s. We have air conditioning, but at the same time, I am in a basement classroom that I love normally, but it doesn't have windows that open.
And I have one door that opens that's supposed to stay closed for safety reasons in case there's an active shooter. And there are just so many day to day things that go on in a classroom that I think it's really hard for someone who's not in a classroom to think about. And what happened was the beginning of July, the state of New Jersey released what they called the road back. It was 104 pages of guidelines for school districts to reopen. So I am a reader. I immediately started reading and so did a lot of my colleagues. And within like three pages were like this is not realistic at all. And like, that's from my perspective as a high school English teacher or a high school science teacher. So a colleague of mine was like, well, I bet a lot of people have questions. Why don't you like do something?
So I started a Google Doc, which I quickly turned into a Google Form because I realized adults are very similar to teenagers. And I was like, no, no, I need someone to curate. This has to be controlled. And we very quickly got up to almost 400 questions that New Jersey teachers had for the governor about reopening. And for me, it was really eye opening because I don't teach pre-K, I don't teach art. The questions that came in from specialists in their own areas were mindblowing. And of course, there were a lot of general questions too. Like, do I have to use my sick days if I get quarantined more than once? Like if I work in an office building the odds of being exposed multiple times in a two or three month period are pretty small, but in a classroom, they're pretty big because we don't control what happens to our students outside of the school day.
That snowballed. I talked to union leaders across the country who then started documents for their own states for their own districts. Nobody has really provided any answers, which is disappointing. The answer seems to be we're opening school and it's all going to be this grand experiment. And I have a problem with that. Like I've had to do baby experiments. And if you have humans involved, you need IRB approval. And it just seems so strange to me that we're throwing teachers and students sort of into the lion's den to see what happens. And I'm lucky that I can speak out. It took me a long time to get tenure. I was on maternity leave replacement for awhile in my first district. And then, I was rift or reduction in force from there. So then I started over. So I feel like I earned my tenure and now I can speak out.
And as I keep telling people, all these questions, everything that I've written, this is nothing about my own district. This is stuff that the state, that the Department of Education, that the federal government needs to provide answers for. Like even silly things. Like I usually buy tissues for my classroom every year, because anyone who's been at a school knows that they're like sandpaper. I buy regular Kleenex. Now my colleagues, instead of buying tissues, they're buying face shields and dozens of masks and scrubs and scrub caps and washable shoes because that's what they're being told. And I am not a healthcare worker for a reason. Like needles make me pass out. Blood makes me pass out. And suddenly I'm being told, "Hey, you're essentially a frontline healthcare worker." So the only outlet I've had is this advocacy. And I wish someone would listen. I don't think many people are, but it does make me feel better to share what I'm thinking. And then, be able to talk to teachers across the country and even across the world who are dealing with similar feelings around safety and health right now.
Meenoo: I think it's at every level, right? It's your district, it's the state. And then again, we would be remiss if we didn't call out the lack of coordinated effort at the federal level where we've known this from January, that this is happening. And how much loss we've had to endure in terms of lives of 170,000 of our citizens. And so much more, the mourning that we talked about in this episode. And I think to the point of no one's listening, but if they were to listen, now there's a set of collected responses and questions and a curated conversation that you've done. So I just want to say thank you. And I think you're modeling what it looks like that even when you're fearful, when you step out of that fear and you take action, what comes out of that.
One of my favorite thinkers is Paulo Freire. I read a quote this week that reminded me of you. And he says, "If a structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed." And it made me think of you because I think what you're doing is you're changing the structure for that dialogue to take place. So I want to just say thank you for your incredible leadership, the bigness of your heart. If we have a chance to do this again, we'd love to check back with you, once school actually gets going and see what that's like. But I just want to say my deepest thanks. And then, we'll also collect links from your writing and anything else that you want to recommend and share with those listening.
Sarah: Great. This has been great. I love chatting with you.
Meenoo: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Sarah: Thank you.
Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive, is a national board certified teacher who taught students English in Philadelphia for ten years, at the Science Leadership Academy and in other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo is a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project and an instructor in Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also worked as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as a Senior Program Manager helping education, nonprofit, and government organizations to accelerate their digital transformation at Microsoft. Follow Meenoo on Twitter @meenoorami.
Sarah Mulhern Gross is a National Board-certified English teacher at High Technology High School in Lincroft, NJ. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Learning Network, Scientific American, ASCD, the Nerdy Book Club blog, The New Jersey English Journal, and The Washington Post's Answer Sheet. Her most recent writing can be found on Medium. Sarah has presented for NCTE, NJCTE, NJCEL, NJEA, The New York Times Learning Network, Fordham University’s Summer Literacy Institute, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the New Jersey Science Teachers Association. She's a founder and organizer of NerdcampNJ. She has a Masters degree in biology; her passion is the intersection of literacy and science, particularly science communication and nature-deficit disorder.